Geoengineering with seagrasses: is credit due where credit is given?
Blue carbon, the carbon fixed by vegetated coastal ecosystems including seagrasses, is reported to have a large potential to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide. Planting, expanding or protecting seagrass meadows has, accordingly, been proposed as a form of geoengineering. Seagrasses are reported to account for up to 18% of the carbon burial in the world's oceans, which is on the same order of magnitude as other proposed geoengineering techniques, including iron fertilization. International protocols have been developed to quantify carbon sequestration in seagrass meadows, with a view to awarding carbon credits under the Verified Carbon Standard. Unfortunately, because these protocols do not adequately account for post-depositional processes in marine sediment, they significantly overestimate carbon capture by seagrass beds and give an incorrect view of its distribution. Specifically, neglecting biomixing and remineralization of carbon in surface sediments biases burial rates high, while using sediment carbon inventory (soil carbon stock) over the top 1 m as a proxy for burial rate incorrectly identifies areas of high carbon burial. Seagrass beds likely provide a limited setting for geoengineering, because they generally comprise slowly-accumulating, fine to medium sand, which captures organic carbon less efficiently than fine-grained sediments or rapidly-accumulating delta deposits. While there is no question that seagrass meadows provide valuable habitat, nor that they are disappearing rapidly, their contribution to the global burial of carbon has not yet been established. The danger of geoengineering with seagrasses before reliable assessment methods have been established is that overestimated carbon offsets could lead to a net increase in emissions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.